Sunday, April 15, 2007

April 16

On 16 April 1947, the French ship Grandcamp -- a salvaged American vessel formerly known as the Benjamin R. Curtis -- was to be loaded with twine, peanuts, drilling equipment, tobacco, cotton, and about 17 million pounds of ammonium nitrate, shipped to the port at Texas City from Nebraska and Iowa. When a fire erupted in Hold 4 of the ship around 8:00 a.m., crew members and local firefights spent an hour trying to extinguish the blaze before the fertilizer ignited, causing a massive explosion that destroyed everything in a several-hundred yard radius. A 15-foot tidal wave surged over the port facilities, tossing boats indiscriminately; one 150-foot oil barge was tossed 200 feet. Bodies cut in half by flying steel clotted the harbor, and smoldering cotton and twine showered the city, igniting fires that ultimately burned for days. The ship’s anchor -- weighing 3000 pounds -- was discovered two miles away. Ruptured oil tanks and pipes dumped crude slicks into the harbor. Flaming debris set them alight. At 1:00 a.m., the USS High Flyer -- which had been docked next to the Grandcamp and was also bulging with explosive chemicals -- erupted into flames and was itself torn asunder by an explosion that showered the city with more steel debris.

The explosion of the Grandcamp could be heard 150 miles in the distance, and it has sometimes been claimed that the blast was interpreted by Colorado seismologists as a nuclear bomb -- the possibility of which sent the United States’ Strategic Air Command into a temporarily heightened nuclear alert. Over $32 million worth of property was destroyed.

Carrie Born Baker, a young mother at the time of the disaster, recalled the event a half century later:
I was waiting for a Houston salesman to come show me drapery material. As we looked at his fabric, the blast blew the door open in his face, and he took off for Houston. I grabbed Sheary and ran outside. Deafening sirens were blaring. Police cars and ambulances were everywhere. My nieghbor's husband and son-in-law worked at the docks, and she kept fainting.

A nieghbor came by in his flatbed truck and made us get in. I didn't want to leave but another explosion was expected, and I had to get my brothers, sisters, and baby to safety. My older brother drove to Houston to tell my husband Tommy and Dad where we were going . . .

My brother-in-law, Truman Baker, was a Monsanto foreman, last seen going to the fire. Tommy and his brother-in-law, Walter Stidham, were part of group searching for bodies. They kept looking for Truman and Walter's father. It took a long time to find them. Fingerprints and dental work indentified Truman. Tommy never liked to think of the explosion because all he could see was the bodies and pieces of bodies, and smell that awful smell. When he thought of his brother, he remembered his face caved-in.

I knew a lot of people that died that day. Many I worked with at Monsanto or lived near. I lost friends, family and many acquaintances. I will never forget that day even though many names have faded from memory.
The exact death toll of the Texas City explosion could never be accurately determined, since so many of the missing were never recovered, and because there were untold numbers of workers and seamen who may have been visiting or working at the facility without documentation. The best estimates, however, are that nearly 600 people died and several thousand more suffered injuries. The entire Texas City volunteer fire department -- twenty-eight members in all -- perished.